Audit criticizes OCR and ONC over data privacy efforts

HHS's own Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a scathing report regarding pervasive breaches in privacy and security of patient data. OIG specifically called out the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), charged with enforcement of HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, for failing to investigate and punish the vast majority of violators.

The audit tested seven hospitals' compliance with HIPAA in seven different states, and found 151 vulnerabilities in the systems and controls intended to cover e-PHI, 124 of which were categorized as "high-impact" (i.e., ones which may result in costly losses, injury or death.)  Violations included unencrypted wireless connections, easy passwords, and even a taped-over door lock on a room used for data storage. Via Modern Healthcare:

The audits of the seven hospitals revealed weaknesses in hospital IT defenses of electronic protected health information, or ePHI, ranging from the fact that several hospitals still were using obsolete and vulnerable encryption protocols to the fact that all seven had vulnerable access controls in which “Outsiders or employees at some hospitals could have accessed, and in one hospital did access, systems and beneficiaries' personal data and performed unauthorized acts without the hospitals' knowledge.”

“These vulnerabilities placed the confidentiality, integrity and availability of ePHI at risk,” the auditors said. The individual hospital audit reports were not disclosed “because the reports contained restricted, sensitive information that may be exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act,” according to the report.


OIG also criticized the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) for their failure to develop standards ensuring privacy and security of patient data as part of ARRA's push for digitizing medical records:

As a yardstick for ONC performance as a security champion, the inspector general's auditors reviewed last year's ONC-developed interim final rule and final rule on standards, implementation specifications and certification criteria for the ARRA-funded electronic health record system incentive payment program. The auditors found both wanting.

The report's authors differentiated between two types of security measures. One they described as “application security controls” that “function inside systems or applications to ensure that they work correctly.” Such measures include security controls covered by the ONC final rule and used in testing and certification of electronic health-record systems as able to meet meaningful-use requirements for providers participating in the federal IT incentive payment programs. An example is a requirement that certified EHRs be able to encrypt data shared between providers.

The auditors called the other type of measures “general information technology security controls,” described as “structure, policies and procedures that apply to an entity's overall computer operation.”

An example would be a policy that requires providers to use encryption software on their systems and encrypt all data copied from an EHR and placed on a portable storage device, such as a laptop, CD or a portable thumb drive. The auditors found that the ONC had included application controls in writing its interoperability specifications for meaningful use, but that "there were no (health IT) standards that included general IT security controls.”

Other examples of general controls not addressed by the ONC but suggested for development by the report would be requirements that providers use two-factor authentication to gain access to an organization's health IT system and policies that mandate that organizations install “patches” or bug fixes in a routine and timely manner to computers that process and store EHRs.

"Audit reports hit HHS on digital security," Modern Healthcare (May 17, 2011).


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